After an enforced lay-off, Sanny and Rory get re-acquainted with an old mountain friend.
Picture the scene. A slightly sweaty studio somewhere in London. The studio lights are burning down on you with the intense ferocity of an angry sun. Your family have already wasted 2 life lines and an expectant Bob Monkhouse (Ask your parents! – Ed) is hanging on for your answer with bated breath. The Goodwin family from South Penge are waiting for the steal. “We asked 100 members of the public to name a Scottish Mountain. You said Ben Lomond. Our survey said…….(cue pause for dramatic effect)……..(ping!) 73 people!” The audience go mad. You’ve just won the £3,000 jackpot!
Ok so I may exaggerate a little but Ben Lomond is arguably the quintessential Scottish summit. The most southerly of the Munros, its proximity to Glasgow on the eastern shore of that other well kent Scottish institution, Loch Lomond, makes it a magnet for the sandshoe sporting newbie and the seasoned mountaineer alike. Truth be told, it was the very first proper mountain I climbed as a kid with my mum and dad and it proved to be the catalyst for my many mountain adventures since. Back then, we headed up through the thick cloud near the summit, narrowly avoiding coming a cropper on the long drop into the Ben’s northern corrie and experienced the Ultra 4K scenery that the mountain specialises in. It may be derided as a punter peak but it is to my mind, a truly wonderful mountain that can deliver dramatic views and a top notch descent of over 3000 un-interrupted feet.
How long has it been? Too long!
With lockdown having well and truly put the kibosh on big mountain adventures for the last year, I had to admit that I jumped at the chance of an adventure in the mountains close to home in the name of work when a couple of Canyon Spectral 29s arrived at my door with an instruction to go out and have some fun. Ever mindful of the importance of sticking to lockdown rules and with an innate desire to not just do the right thing but be seen to be doing it too, there was really only one option: Lomond. Having walked and ridden it many times, it is a mountain that I am intimately acquainted with. They say familiarity breeds contempt but each time I have visited the mountain, I have taken something different and positive away with me. Whether it was getting stuck for the night by the kerbside in Balmaha with my friend Susie as our hitch-hiking skills proved to be somewhat poorer than we had thought or an ascent from the rarely visited northern approach on a blisteringly hot May day that ended with my old faithful Turner 5 Spot snapping clean through at the seat post, the Ben, as locals call it, always delivers.
Cometh the weather, cometh the ride.
Spying a weather window that held promise of a temperature inversion and expansive, panoramic views against a crystal clear blue sky backdrop, I roped in my good friend Rory into joining me. A seasoned traveller in the back country on his split board, Rory exudes the cool calm that you want from your travelling companion when you are heading up above the snowline with bikes. With Covid still very much an issue, the last thing either of us wanted to do was have to call out the Mountain Rescue at a time when incidents such as the one on Red Screes earlier in the year saw one of the team sustain life changing injuries during a call out. Knowing the mountain and knowing our limits was to be key as I found myself writing a risk assessment. I usually do this in my head as a matter of course every time I go into the mountains but the imperative of not wanting to be that person putting others at risk during these strange and unusual times was too important for me. Risks assessed, mitigations in place, route plotted – we were good to go.
Not quite “taps aff!” weather!
Driving through the pre-dawn fog at a pace that even Miss Daisy would shout “Get a bloody move on, Morgan Freeman!”, I have to admit to being more than a little excited at the prospect of getting out into the mountains after such a long period of enforced abstinence. The first piece of the inversion jigsaw was well and truly in place. Pulling up at a deserted Rowardennan car park, save only for a cheeky camper van whom the temptation was high to knock loudly on their windows and shout “Police!”, the brisk chill of dawn hit us. “Ow code ith it?” I muffled through my face mask. “Theero degwees!” came the equally muffled reply. It was definitely the chilly side of fresh as we set off along the shoreline track that would carry us for all of a few hundred metres before the hike a bike would start. Opting for the less popular Ptarmigan route as opposed to the processional motorway vibe of the main track up, bikes were shouldered and balanced on our packs as we started the long haul up to the summit far above us and out of sight.
Can we do it? Yes we can(yon)! (Groan! -Ed)
Heading through the mature native woodland, I couldn’t help but marvel at the many types of moss and lichen I could see all around me. A small waterfall bubbled and gurgled just off the path as we made our way upwards. Of course, this being a woodland path, we lost track of the number of times our wheels caught in a branch or bush and pivoted us around in undignified fashion. “One step forward, twelfty back!”, I laughed to myself as I stumbled into the undergrowth with the elegance and grace of a drunk giraffe on roller skates; only to see Rory do similar. Between us, we had all the smoothness of Brian Fontana’s cologne collection!
Gradually leaving the deceptively stationary homage to Mirkwood in our tracks, the trail twisted and turned its way up the mountain at a decent rate of knots. Recent trail building by the National Park and Forest and Land Scotland has seen the trail develop into something a lot more sustainable than it once was. The deep, stone pitched channel wends its way ever upward and round the side of the mountains southern flank. Looking across the Loch, we could hear the steady drone of cars up the A82, a road familiar to everyone who has ever had the dubious pleasure of going to Fort William to experience “Midgefest” aka the UCI World Cup.
The warm glow of a low winter sun (or, to be precise spring sun as it was the first day of spring!) on the hills opposite promised much for the climb ahead. Blue sky was coming through while an inversion covered much of the Loch in a ghostly sheen of grey foreboding. Between the two, Rory and I were actively sweating; a combination of too many layers and physical exertion making it no easy task to hit the right temperature on the ascent.
“Why didn’t Frodo just fly an eagle to Mount Doom then?”
Passing by our first bank of snow, our track beckoned us ever upwards with a promise of delights unseen. The views were definitely coming but we were going to have to earn them. The well-constructed path made for ease of passage. I recalled a previous winter ascent that bore remarkable resemblance to ascending the Stairs of Cirith Ungol into Mordor. This time round, it was a much more pleasant affair as I made a mental note of all the various trail features to look out for if the snow and ice further up forced a retreat.
Crossing a bank of hard frozen snow before a stream crossing, we started to get excited. We were about to hit peak sunshine! Rounding a corner, the horizon opened up as the temperature jumped several degrees in an instant. Stopping for our first proper look around, it was hard not to be impressed. The entire southern half of Loch Lomond and the Clyde valley and estuary in the distance were shrouded in cloud.
Our getting up at the crack of the sparrow’s fart, pre-dawn, had proven to be the right decision as was our route choice. The narrow path continued unabated ever upwards but we now had a series of rises to navigate, each offering even greater views than the last. When it comes to mountains, I like to be surprised. From a distance, the Ben looks like a classic pointy mountain. Catch it at the right time on a summer’s evening from the nearby Campsie Fells and as the sun sets behind it, it has the look of Mount Doom in all its fiery fury. Up close, certainly on this route, it keeps the interest all the way to the summit.
“Riding our bikes again? How quaint!”
Cresting a rounded hummock after a series of particularly inviting switchbacks, a short but glorious section of descent beckoned us. To tempt us just that little bit more, all the peaks of the Southern Highlands decided to join our party with promise of adventures future. With the trail becoming more exposed bedrock than sanitised path, we actually managed to ride our bikes, albeit intermittently! A hanging lochan and broad bank of crusty snow marked the start of Phase 2 of our adventure.
Being a firm believer in the moto “Better looking at it than looking for it” and with experience being the knowledge you acquire just after you need it, we were properly prepared for this eventuality. As anyone who has travelled in the mountains in winter can attest, the rules of engagement are different at altitude. The proper kit can make the difference between fun and folly.
Not your usual bike attire.
Reaching into our bags, we both pulled out our flexible walking crampons. Designed for trail running on ice, with a bit of care and awareness of their limits, they can have a transformative effect on your day out. Putting them on, I immediately came a cropper as one of the spikes caught in my heel loop and toppled me in an undignified heap on the snow. The irony of injuring oneself while putting on spikes was not lost on us! Je suis une diddy! Cranking up the smug factor to eleven, we were both sporting some rather fine spiked ice tyres on our machines. With the potential for encountering ice high, we weren’t for taking any chances. It would be more than a little disappointing to find yourself sliding towards a great drop for the sake of the wrong tyres!
Mixing riding with carrying, we were able to make rapid progress across the increasingly frequent banks of snow and ice. Although not your standard piece of biking kit and really rather specialized, the difference the spikes and tyres made was astounding. I have long been an advocate and user of both but for Rory, this was his first experience of using them and safe to say that he was impressed. Fundamentally, they were the difference between continuing and heading back to base.
Looks steep, is steep.
The higher we got, the more challenging the terrain became as the slopes steepened and the path disappeared under the snow. My mind was drawn to the classic picture taken on the South West Face of Everest during the ground breaking ascent by Doug Scott and Dougal Haston. The snow slope reared up in front of us like some kind of malevolent sleeping giant, poised to force us to turn us back at any point. Our only way through was a series of steps made by what can only have been Andre the Giant. I have pretty long legs but whoever made them must have been some kind of colossus! Bikes shouldered, we moved carefully but quickly up onto easier ground.
Each time the terrain eased off, another snow bound challenge presented itself: a rocky boulder scramble, hard packed ice, a steep chute, a narrow ridge of snow. Truth be told, it was utterly exhilarating. Carrying a bike up a snow slope in excess of 45 degrees could be kindly described as a bit of an acquired taste. To many, it would be their idea of torture. However, for both Rory and I, deprived of mountain adventures for the last 12 months, it felt like some kind of glorious release.
Progress slowed as we took our time to take in and properly embrace our surroundings. I guess you could call it mindfulness. Not being a practiced purveyor of prosaic purple prose aka “flowery wank” as someone at this fine publication once described it (although I gather that I have a way with alliteration!), I will refrain from waxing lyrical about just how good it felt to be in the there and now. It just felt really good and nothing was going to interfere with that……except perhaps the two empty bottles of Buckfast, carefully adorned by the summit like some kind of post-modern art installation on the futility of recycling.
Never underestimate the ability of idiots to ruin things.
It was probably just as well as we were alone on the summit as I went into full rant mode – Hell hath no fury like a woman* (*except for a sweary Scotsman whose approach to dealing with people who litter would be viewed by Genghis Khan as “a bit much”). It was a scene that was to repeat with depressing regularity throughout the descent. I lost count of the number of bottles, crisp bags, chocolate wrappers, banana skins and even Pot Noodle cups that were scattered all over the mountain. Clearly lockdown hasn’t stopped the hard of thinking from taking to the mountains and treating it like their bin. Still, as Woody Allen once said, nothing that some Prozac and a polo mallet wouldn’t cure! (“Come back to us, Sanny! It’s like you’re arguing with a pigeon!” –Ed)
Deep breaths, Sanny. Deep breaths.
Right. Where was I? Oh yes, standing on top of a big mountain looking forward to a top notch descent. “Shall I break out the drone?” Rory enquired. “Hell yeah!” I replied with almost indecent haste. Visions of the camera slowing rising up from the depths of the precipitous northern corrie then following us down the trail filled my thoughts. My inner Paul Greengrass was ready to play. “Lights! Camera!………Inaction!” As now appears to be a tradition for rides with Rory, the drone decided to throw a flounce and refused to fly. The last time we brought a drone, it was on Binnean Mor for a feature and that time round, the drone refused to recognise the camera. This time, it seemed to be the battery at fault. “Bet you are glad you carried that all the way up , eh?” I offered unhelpfully. Displaying his customary relaxed reaction to such things, he just shrugged as he packed it back in his bag. On the bright side, you could call it secret weight training!
Moment of calm reflection.
Dropping our saddles, the time had come to cash in on our hard earned gravity points. Dropping off the summit slabs into a bank of soft snow, we were glad of our spiked tyres for the extra bit of traction and security they offered. Arriving at a granny stopper step up, I glanced to the side and was stopped in my tracks by a memorial stone to a young boy called Michael Heeps. Ben Lomond had been his first Munro in 2019 but why it was there and what happened to young Michael only became clear when I got home and discovered that he had tragically died in a swimming accident on Loch Lubnaig last summer. As a parent, I cannot begin to imagine how his family start rebuilding their lives after such a terrible thing happened. I know some folk get upset by memorials on mountains, the view being that they are regarded as an intrusion on the mountain, but I have to admit that I would much rather the memorial celebrating a young life lost was left where it is.
Float like a bee, sting like a butterfly.
Bypassing the step, we were soon back on the trail. Starting relatively benignly, the trail ramps up in technical challenge the further down you ride. The trail has changed dramatically over the years. The level of stone pitching has increased exponentially with the occasional awkwardly placed water bar hiding in plain sight, ready to catch out the unwary. As we descended, the snow gave way to stone which presented its own particular challenges. Ice tyres are great, of that there is no doubt, but a bit of canny technique is called for when you leave the ice far behind. In this instance, I opted to drop the pressure a bit in my tyres in order to increase traction. While this seemed initially like a wizard idea, a twelve month absence from the mountains had allowed me to forget just how hard and unforgiving the terrain can be. Despite my best efforts to float down the trail like a leaf on the wind, my attempts could be kindly described as bloody shambolic.
“Arse biscuits!”, I expleted as I managed to hit yet another square edged block straight on. While many riders have what could kindly be described as delusions of grandeur when it comes to their riding skills, usually coming from the “the older I get, the better I was” school of bike riding, I am more a delusions of adequacy kind of guy. Most of the time, I am pretty comfortable throwing myself down hillsides with gay abandon but on this showing, I was in dire need of a system reboot. Three punctures. Three bloomin’ punctures I endured while Rory with his tubeless set up had none…..the git! Cue the starter of the often fruitless search for the tiny pin prick of a hole, followed by tedious main course of waiting for glue to cure and finishing with a flourish of a dessert serving of “did I find all the leaks?” On the positive side, it was warm, the sun was out, the grass was relatively dry and the views were top notch.
Lockdown but not as we know it.
Cursing blowout number 3, a group of young lads who looked rather the worse for their exertions, having come up a steeper section of switch-backing steps, enquired plaintively of me “How long to the top, big man?” Hearts sank when I informed them that I have reached the summit from the car park carrying my bike under an hour before. “It’s taken us that long to get here! I’m bloody knackered!” came the plaintive cry. “One step in front of the other, that’s all it is!” I replied in my usual cheerful fashion. As they headed up out of sight, I couldn’t help but reflect on their complete lack of preparedness and smile wryly. White city trainers, football shorts and t shirts – not exactly the mountaineers attire of choice but at least they were out in the hills.
Experience would come and more often than not, the old adage of better to be lucky than clever would most likely apply. That said, I’m fairly sure that a large group of lads doesn’t exactly meet the two people from two different households meeting up for exercise rule! To be fair, they were just a group among the many who had decided to get out on the mountain. Any notion that we would have the mountain to ourselves had been quickly dispelled from pretty much the moment we headed off the summit.
The final puncture of the day fixed, I was able to get back on and enjoy the rest of the glorious descent. For Rory, a lack of recent big mountain riding meant that the further down the trail he got, the more he suffered from tense neck, shoulders and arms. His flow at the top had been replaced with flop and he found himself pitched over the bars a couple of times. Recognising he was making mistakes, he put on his sensible pants and walked down a couple of the trickier sections. He was more than capable of riding them but applying a bit of common sense, he opted not to push his luck and become third time unlucky. Pushing yourself is easy, knowing when to throttle back is where the true skill lies.
Mission accomplished. All riders back to base safe and sound.
As we ate up the descent, the open moorland gave way to the encroaching treeline of the native woodland, the path having been re-engineered radically since my last visit. Much of the technicality has been lost in the name of a shallow series of steps. I much preferred what went before, both from a walking and riding perspective but on a positive note, the steps made for great sport as we took turns to see how smoothly we could ride them without losing our flow.
While the trail may have lost some of its challenge, one thing we could still rely on was the mountain and loch scenery writ large. One of the challenges of riding in the mountains is not necessarily the technical nature of the trails or the added layers of risk that accompany you compared to the likes of a populous trail centre but rather the need to keep one eye on the trail while still trying to take in your surroundings. On the easier sections, I found my eye and mind wandering. Whether it is spotting a buzzard soaring on thermals high above or spying a potential new line on a distant peak, as problems go, it is a nice one to have to deal with. Having a camera in hand is the perfect excuse to just stop for a moment and soak it all in. Whoever said it is all about the journey and not the destination was wise indeed. When it comes to big days out like these, the real winner isn’t the one who reaches the bottom first.
Hitting the final shelter of the trees down by the loch side, we were spat out at the car park in jig time. We had done it. Mission accomplished with only two falls and no submissions. Sitting on a bench overlooking the water and the mountains far beyond, we reflected on what had been a cracking and much needed re-introduction to the mountains. Our next mountain foray would have to wait for lockdown to ease once more but as a day in the office, it was definitely one of the best.
Ben Lomond, The Movie
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